Asia Bibi opens up on her ordeal in autobiography, “Free at last”

Recounting the hellish conditions of eight years spent on death row on blasphemy charges but also the pain of exile, Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi has broken her silence to give her first personal insight into her ordeal in her book, "free at last." She was dramatically acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2018 and now lives in exile in Canada at an undisclosed location. Bibi referred to Pakistan's draconian blasphemy law as a 'Damocles sword' hanging over the head of religious minorities in the country; a sad reality that is quite contrary to Jinnah's vision for Pakistan.

Asia Bibi

Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy, gave her first personal insight into her ordeal and has released photographs taken in exile, in her autobiography, ‘Free at last’.

Bibi was originally sentenced to death on insubstantial evidence in 2010 after being accused of blasphemy in a dispute over a cup of water.

Punjab’s sitting Governor, Salman Taseer, and Christian MP, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti, were slain for publicly supporting her and criticising Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

Moreover, the daunting situation in Pakistan after Asia Bibi’s unfortunate miscarriage of justice was such that if any social activist or lawyer decided to take up her case, it would be akin to putting their own lives in jeopardy.

Mrs. Jane Doe, who preferred not to be named for security reasons, told GVS that the day she decided to promote the case of justice for Asia Bibi, she began to receive countless, handwritten death threats from religious extremists, threating to assassinate her and kidnap her family lest she refused to stand up for Asia Bibi.

She was dramatically acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2018 and now lives in exile in Canada at an undisclosed location.

The autobiography has been written in French with journalist Isabelle-Anne Tollet, who had become a leading campaigner for Bibi’s freedom and is the only reporter to have met Bibi during her stay in Canada.

In the book “Enfin libre!” (“Finally Free”) — published in French on Wednesday with an English version due out in September — Bibi recounts her arrest, the conditions of prison, the relief of her release but also the difficulty of adjusting to a new life.

“You already know my story through the media,” she said in the book. “But you are far from understanding my daily life in prison or my new life,” she said.

‘Depths of darkness’

“I became a prisoner of fanaticism,” she said. In prison, “tears were the only companions in the cell”. She described the horrendous conditions in squalid jails in Pakistan where she was kept chained and jeered at by other detainees.

“My wrists are burning me, it is hard to breathe. My neck… is encased in an iron collar that the guard can tighten with a huge nut,” she wrote.

“A long chain drags along on the filthy ground. This connects my neck to the handcuffed hand who pulls me like a dog on a lead.

Read more: “Pakistan is my homeland, I love my country, I love my soil,” says Asia bibi

“Deep within me, a dull fear takes me towards the depths of darkness. A lacerating fear that will never leave me.”

Many other prisoners showed her no pity. “I am startled by the cry of a woman. ‘To death!’ The other women join in. ‘Hanged!’ Hanged!’.”

At what price?

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even the whiff of an unsubstantiated allegation of insulting Islam can spark death at the hands of mobs.

Her acquittal on the charges, which stemmed from an incident in 2009 when she argued with a Muslim co-labourer, resulted in violent protests that paralysed the country led by firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

Bibi, who vehemently denied the charges against her, argued in the book that the Christian minority in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan still faces persecution.

She referred to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law as a ‘Damocles sword’ hanging over the head of religious minorities in the country; a sad reality that is quite contrary to Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan.

Pakistan inherited blasphemy laws enacted by British colonial authorities and made them more severe between 1980 and 1986, when a number of clauses were added by the Dictator, General Zia-ul Haq, in order to “Islamicise” the laws.

Between 1987 and 2017 at least 1,500 people were charged with blasphemy and at least 75 people involved in accusations of blasphemy were killed in Pakistan according to the Center for Social Justice.

Read More: What are Pakistan’s blasphemy laws?

“Even with my freedom, the climate (for Christians) does not seemed to have changed and Christians can expect all kinds of reprisals,” she said.

And while Canada gives her a safer and more certain future, Bibi also has to come to terms with likely never setting foot in her homeland again.

Read more: Asia Bibi leaves for Canada: Lessons for Pakistan

“In this unknown country, I am ready for a new departure, perhaps for a new life. But at what price?

“My heart broke when I had to leave without saying goodbye to my father or other members of the family.”

“Pakistan is my country. I love my country but I am in exile forever,” she said.

GVS News Desk (Rai Mustafa Bhatti) with additional input from AFP

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